Romans 12: 14-18 ESV
“14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
I’m really grateful for the part that the LORD has allowed me to play over the past few months in the ministry at Takanini Church. It has been a time of growth and increasing clarity for me, and I hope that I have been able to help you in some ways too. As I began to think about my last message here, I became concerned – perhaps a bit more concerned than usual – about the content of those messages. I think the LORD led me to one of those KEEP ON passages because as Penny and I leave New Zealand and Takanini Church transitions, these ideas will help the church to remain stable in a time of change.
The context of this morning’s text is first century Rome. Paul is writing as a way of introducing himself and his message to the Roman Christians. He anticipates a ministry there, and he wants people to be ready. Paul was a spirit-filled Christian man whom God used mightily. If we are not careful we might presume that wherever Paul went the seas divided and everyone got along. That was not the case. According to Acts and the Pauline epistles, everywhere Paul went there was controversy, misunderstanding and strife. And Paul was not the exception. The letters of Peter, John, James and Jude also show that the first century church was not the ideal. Fortunately for us, the first century churches went through numerous battles. I say that because epistles like Paul’s to the Romans addresses those problems with real solutions.
Usually Paul spends half of each of his letters addressing some doctrinal issues, then spends the other half on practical issues. Today’s text is within that second half of Romans. He had already made his point that everyone is equal in that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace. Then he made the point that Christ’s death on the cross was the means God used to offer redemption for all of us.
There were basically two types of people in Rome who had accepted God’s redemption through Christ. There were Jewish believers who realized the Jesus was the Messiah predicted in the Old Testament, and so accepted him as their Lord. There were pagans from the other nations of the Roman empire who accepted Christ as well. The problem was, these two types of Roman Christian did not always get along.
It is in that context that Paul gives the church this command: “Keep on living in harmony with one another.” Perhaps if Paul were a modern-day church growth expert he would have analyzed the situation in Rome and said: “Look, guys, you are too different. What you should do is split into two different denominations. The First Messianic Jewish General Conference can keep its traditions and target other Jews in the community; the New Gentile Church of Jesus can concentrate on the pagans who are hearing the message about Jesus for the first time.” But Paul did not say that. He had in mind for the Roman churches to sing their different tunes in harmony with one another.
How does a church or group of churches live in harmony with one another without compromising their diversity? One of the keys is found right here in today’s text. Paul tells the Roman Christians to “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (14). Where is this persecution coming from? The church was being persecuted by the Roman government during this time, and they were also being persecuted by Jews who had rejected Christ as the Messiah. Can you see how an undisciplined mouth could have caused disharmony in the churches at Rome? Cursing Caesar would have been insulting all Gentiles. Cursing the Jewish persecutors would be insulting all Jews. The best reaction: bless your persecutors.
Secondly, Paul tells the Roman Christians to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (15). He’s telling the people to not remain spectators in their community’s life. They need to adopt one another as family, and get involved in each other’s lives. Believers are a family and it will not do for a family member to forget your birthday or anniversary, or to not attend your funeral. Often we think the easiest way to keep harmony is to restrict the time we have around each other. That is not what God wants. He does not want his family only meeting for an hour or two every Sunday, and then retreating into the safety of our own foxholes!
Thirdly, Paul tells the Romans “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be conceited” (16). He encourages the church members to stay low enough on the totem pole so they can still see everybody. Jesus had proclaimed the same message with a wash basin and a towel. In the first century Roman church, both major factions had reason to take pride. The Jews could have pride in their biblical heritage, while the Romans could have pride in the fact that they did not stand on tradition. Either way, pride could destroy the church’s harmony, and thwart its mission.
Fourthly, Paul warns against the spirit of revenge. He says “Repay no one evil for evil” (17). He wants them to avoid payback, because it never accomplishes anything but disharmony. It is wise to overlook an offense. Notice that Paul assumes that people are going to do evil things. Remember, this is a church context. There is no church anywhere that is immune to people doing stupid, childish, evil things. If you are still looking for such a church, you can stop now. You will not find it. I think God allows those kinds of things to happen in our church communities because he is looking for us to be wise enough to obey this command. When his people turn the other cheek, he is glorified.
Finally, Paul says “give thought to do what is honourable in the sight of all” (17). Disharmony happens because I want to play my instrument and I don’t care how it is going to sound when you are playing yours. The trouble is, a church is not a solo concert. It is an orchestra. The music has to come from all the instruments, and it has to harmonize in such a way that all the music together sounds good. Even the greatest of all conductors cannot make an orchestra work if the musicians do not have respect for each other, and cooperate.
I want to tell you that it has been a great honour for me to teach in this pulpit and to be a part of this community for the past year. I am convinced that Takanini Church has what it takes to share the light of Christ’s gospel and lead people to him. I am also convinced that Satan is looking for an opportunity to spread disharmony and discord here, just as he was in Rome. That is why I chose this as my concluding message.
LORD, guard us from disharmony. We commit ourselves — so far as it depends on us, to live peaceably with all.